…The Whole Place Goes Up
Today with Spring here finally we ought to be living
outdoors with our friends.
Let’s go to those strangers in the field
and dance around them like bees from flower to flower,
Building in the beehive air
our true hexagonal homes.
Someone comes in from the outside saying,
‘Don’t play music just for yourselves.’
Now we’re tearing up the house like a drum,
collapsing walls with our pounding.
We hear a voice from the sky calling our lovers
and the odd lost people. We scatter lives.
We break what holds us, each one a blacksmith
heating iron and walking to the anvil.
We blow on the inner fire.
With each striking we change.
The whole place goes up, all stability gone to smoke.
Sometimes high, sometimes low, we begin anywhere,
we have no method.
We’re the bat swung by powerful arms.
Balls keep rolling from us, thousands of them underfoot.
Now we’re still. Silence also is wisdom, a flame
hiding in cotton wool.
Another mind is moving in me, a second nature that is as inseparable from me as my shadow, except that in relation to it I am the shadow and it the light. The dilemma I find myself in (if I find myself at all) is that this other is hidden from me in the same way that seeing is hidden from things that are seen. The work of meditative thinking is a collaboration between these two natures—the seer that remembers and the seen that always forgets. As in rowing, if you pull more on one oar than the other, you go round in circles, and, as in rowing, all I can see is what I have passed as I press forward toward a point that is hidden behind me.
I am tired, but she is not tired.
I am wordless;
she, who has never spoken a word of her own,
is full of thoughts as precise and impassioned
as the yellow and black exchanges of a wasp’s striped body.
For a long time I thought her imposter.
her jokes, even her puns, are only too subtle for me to follow.
And so we go on, mostly ignoring each other,
though what I cook, she eats with seeming gusto,
and letters intended for her alone I open with curious ease,
as if I, not she, were the long-accomplished thief.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
Monks’ Valley, Cappadocia
The Edge of Summer
Housed in the heart
of the sycamore
we’re recycling its green
to the ground below
a power tool
not a woodpecker
axis and rotation
halfway to full
all that buried life
bramble and dock
but how to write good verses
without a pot of oolong?
in the still air
dance their frenetic jizz
through the canopy
greying clouds and a chill
when this ash grows
past that sycamore
would you speak of win and lose?
fistfuls of Burnlaw berries
that never reach the bowl
protected with flames
and burnt sandalwood
oh to be a jaguar
slumbering in these boughs!
bark as skin
and like all skin
its own fragrance
on a cooler evening
easier to dream of woodsmoke
worry – a temptress
worry – a truthteller
impossible to say in the dark
caught in the lake
the bounce of borrowed light
to grow roots
or go and reinvent yourself –
the weight of choice
the spread of heather – August
woven purple into the hills
while there’s still light
we move inside
the edge of summer
in reddening rowan.
22nd August 2015.
Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.
– for Karen and Joe –
am I dreaming
or is it dreaming me?
the sudden marvel
of a cactus bloom
white peacock tail
starburst and curl
a clematis unclenching
modelled in wax
the fin de siècle scent
Nerys’s peonies always
on the point of opening
what to love most
or their shadows?
a bowl of stones
raven skull and wingbone
of green thoughts
about their flicked tips
just so, chic
say what they mean
and mean what they say
a second spiral
a whole afternoon
reading the trees
binding their torn pages
to a house of flowers
I bring flowers –
two kinds of lilies
the smell of green
1 – 10 May 2015
A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.
Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.
To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.
In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.
In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?
I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.
The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.
To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.
Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.
A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.
Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.
I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.
Opening into May – one of Northumberland’s most glorious months – I am delighted to introduce a new guest piece brought home from the other side of Europe by a talented young writer I have worked with over a number of years. Still only 16, Marcie Winstanley is passionate about words – reading and writing – and committed to what I’m sure will be a lifetime of putting pen to paper (or increasingly fingers to keyboard).
I heard that Marcie had written a short piece while on one of her family’s regular visits to her aunt’s cottage in Mainland Greece, looking out onto the Aegean, where the nearest town is Volos. I was particularly intrigued by the mention of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum). I had to look up the musmula (Mespilus germanica) – and discovered that it is a mediterranean medlar, a cross between a pear and hawthorn, which sounds delicious. So, enjoy this small taste of a garden in Greece, caught just at the end of April. The photos were taken by Marcie’s sister, Nina (age 14).
On a bee’s hum I hear an echo of things that have been, of memories. And I zoom in as if through a camera’s lens on the present, the sense of now, the moment.
Trees grow, thick and leafy and from here I can see the shades that make up the view that shares itself with me, allows me to capture a fragment of its beauty. I see the spring shoots and tendrils of the vine, fresh and light amongst the weathered brown of its trellis and I see the deep green of the musmula leaves, so close I can almost touch them. The grass is speckled with daisies, white.
The Judas blossoms blush pink and petals drop at intervals onto the stones of the terrace below, joining the violet of the wisteria flowers, tumbling from the growing plant, which pokes its head towards the balcony.
A few light drops of rain begin to fall amongst the leaves, touching their edges like tiny feet, and my gaze wanders towards the sea. The mass of tangled green branches of olives seem to run to its edge, merging with the shimmering grey that matches the clouds. A pale blue haze on the horizon fades and ever changes.
As yesterday was the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney (for my stint at the Botanic Gardens in 2013), it seemed like the perfect day to receive an email from the folk at Plumwood Mountain (An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics) letting me know their first issue is now available online.
The poem of mine they have included considers the ants I met while I was in Australia. I like the idea of them being called back home, to the forests where they belong.
This week I’ve been enjoying listening to Germaine Greer read from her new book White Beech: The Rainforest Years, about her conservation efforts on 60 hectares of an old dairy farm in south eastern Queensland. It’s a great venture and her narrative is teeming with powerful evocations of the plant, bird and insect life at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in The Independent, ‘It really is some story’, written by a woman who is ‘a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders’.
Closer to home, several of the trees in our woods were perilously near to crashing down in last autumn’s storms so they’ve had to be felled. They’re such enormous trees, fir and spruce, that their shift from vertical to horizontal makes the space out there feel quite different. It’s as if something’s been erased, a stretch of time lost. But I’m sure the ants will be very happy.
‘How long does it take to make the woods?’ How long does it take to make the woods? As long as it takes to make the world. The woods is present as the world is, the presence of all its past and of all its time to come. It is always finished, it is always being made, the act of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction. It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning belong to the end and beginning of all things, the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning. What is the way to the woods, how do you get there? By climbing up through the six days’ field, kept in all the body’s years, the body’s sorrow, weariness and joy, by passing through the narrow gate on the far side of that field where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way to the high original standing of the trees. By coming into the shadow, the shadow of the grace of the straight way’s ending, the shadow of the mercy of light. Why must the gate be narrow? Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened. To come into the woods you must leave behind the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes. You must come without weapon or tool, alone, expecting nothing, remembering nothing, into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf. Wendell Berry
What tells a flower to dry to paper
and make a packet for its own seeds?
Why do autumn crocuses, palest mauve,
keep no leaves for leaning on?
Where does the heron’s neck go,
perched so high in the cedar?
of the Petrosaviales family?
Is it true only filched canary creepers thrive?
How does a small pink flower dye
dark blue? Where does it hide its stain?
in a Scottish city or on a Chinese mountain?
What wit chose the paint
to match the moorhens’ beaks?
And why do weekend crowds
infuse the garden with restlessness?
How does a flower grow from stone?
What will happen when there’s more
to save than what remains? Please explain.